Before heading to Cuba a few weeks ago, I had planned to do some research on the country, but what with one thing and another, that never happened.
Luckily, the people we ran into on the trip were all great ambassadors for their country and filled in a lot of blanks along the way.
Our first guide was Leo, who was on the two-hour bus ride from the Santa Clara airport to Cayo Santa Maria. He told us that Cuba had been inhabited by indigenous people before the country was ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus in 1492.
Wikipedia tells me that soon afterwards, Spain appointed governors to rule in Havana, and that Havana was briefly occupied by Great Britain in 1762, before being returned in exchange for Florida (who knew?!). Despite several rebellions during the 19th century, Spain didn’t withdraw from Cuba until 1898, at which point the Americans stepped in for several years.
According to another one of our guides, the Americans basically showed up and took over the property of the Cubans who had lived on the land for generations, declaring themselves the legal owners of the land as they had paperwork, which the Cubans did not.
In 1902, Cuba gained its independence, but a series of corrupt governments eventually led to the Cuban Revolution in the 1958 and 1959, led by Fidel and Raúl Castro. Since that time, the country has been governed as a socialist state (apparently they prefer that over ‘Communist’).
Leo, a university graduate, told us he is very proud of his socialist government which provides free education (including university), free health care and free dental care to all of its residents, and according to the World Bank, Cuba has a literacy rate of 100 per cent. Most Cubans live in government-supplied houses, which are passed on down through families. As in any country, there is a wide range of housing and it’s easy to see who has money and who doesn’t.
Surprisingly, Leo told us that cars are far more valuable than houses which explains why so many vintage American vehicles can still be seen driving around the countryside. Newer vehicles are primarily Chinese or Russian. as the United States has had an embargo in place in Cuba for over 50 years.
All of the tour guides we heard from were very critical of the embargo and accused the U.S. under the current president of trying to undermine Cuba’s economy. They said things had been improving under President Obama but had since deteriorated, which is unfortunate given Cuba’s proximity to the U.S.
To ‘pay’ for their university education, Cuban graduates are expected to work for two years, and Leo told us many grads are now setting their sights on the lucrative tourism industry, which offers them the best opportunity to earn tips and receive gifts from visitors.
As a result, people working at the resorts may well be trained as doctors, lawyers and other professionals, and many remain beyond their two-year requirement as they can provide a higher standard of living for themselves and their families through the tourism industry.
It was reassuring to know that the pre-travel research I’d done into gifts hadn’t been all for naught. I had taken a bunch of kids’ sunglasses, sunhats and t-shirts, as well as nice soaps, lotions and AA batteries as per some suggestions I’d read online. We left a few items out each day for the housekeeping staff along with a few pesos.
On our final day, we still had some stuff left over, so we put a travel size package of Kleenex, four AA batteries and a big box of Jelly Bellies into a Ziploc bag for the guy who was going to take us and our bags to the front desk to check out. When we gave him that, along with five pesos, he stared at the bag and said, “Seriously? You rock!”
At that point, I was embarrassed that such a small thing had been so well-received and was reminded once again how fortunate we are in Canada.
A highlight of our trip was a trip into Havana, despite the fact it required a five-hour bus trip to get there and another five-hour trip back.
Originally, my cousin Marina and I were content to let my sister Roseanne take that trip on her own as she was the only one of us interested in getting on a bus at 4:15 a.m., but in the end it was well worth it.
Havana, like the rest of Cuba, is a fascinating place where crumbling buildings stand alongside impressive colonial masterpieces of architecture.
All of the people we spoke to are optimistic about Cuba’s future, with some changes, including private sector opportunities and foreign investment now taking place.
Even so, Cuba is still considered a developing nation, and everyone should take that into consideration before visiting.
That said, the beautiful beaches and the friendly, proud people of Cuba make it easy to say I’d definitely go back there again!